Fallout

journalism

THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE – September 23, 2001

Fallout

ON THE MORNING of Tuesday the 11th, I got out of the subway in Midtown at around 9:15 and found a jittery cell-phone voice mail from my wife instructing me simply to call her right away at home. Because I’d been underground for the previous half-hour, I hadn’t heard anything about the attacks. And so the first thing my wife said when I reached her made no sense to me at all: ”Pieces of burned documents are floating out of the sky into the backyard!” Then she filled me in. As soon as I discovered that the subways were no longer running, I began my eight-mile walk back home.

It was on the Bowery that those of us walking south met the first wave of refugees from the financial district walking north, people still wearing white breathing masks, people who had been crying and people in suits covered from head to toe in dust and soot, as if they’d been powdered, like actors made up to play the living dead. By the time I got to the Manhattan Bridge, I noticed that people were palpably relieved — pleased to be escaping the high-strung chorus of sirens. I was surprised that almost no one glanced back at the plume.

The wind was blowing to the southeast that day, sending smoke and motes of debris up and into Brooklyn. It carried a flurry of papers from the World Trade Center directly across the harbor, over Governors Island and into my garden a half-mile from the waterfront. Some were scraps, some were whole pages. Some were pocked as if by shrapnel; a few were charred around the edges in precisely that fake-looking, picturesque way that I used to char the treasure maps I made as a kid. The bits and pieces fluttered out of the heavens into my home. Strewn here on the floor now, stinking of smoke, this pile of banal file-drawer detritus seems transmuted, instant archaeological objects retroactively charged with meaning, too sad and strange to keep but too sad and strange to throw away.

There are a lot of standard impersonal documents dealing with world trade (a Portuguese law-firm presentation, engineering specs for the Chin Shan Nuclear Power Plant in Taiwan) and trains (a description of ”track-to-earth resistance test” for rails, a memo about last spring’s PATH fare increases).

There are pages ripped from four books — a guide to Georgia restaurants, a psychology text about creativity, ”Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” and some kind of catalog with each entry rendered in several different Asian languages.

There are pieces of more personal ephemera. An equities research report on Nomura Securities that had been sent to a woman named Alison Schatz two years ago. A sheet filled out in ballpoint by an insurance-company employee named Jane Eggers, detailing her work flow for August. And an American Express receipt signed by someone named D. J. McCluskey, who had left a 20 percent tip on a restaurant check.

And then there are the papers like these: a copy of a memo to a Port Authority contractor working on an electrical upgrade for the towers. A loose-leaf page about fire doors. And a letter from an advertising executive in 1996 to the restaurateur Joe Baum, thanking him for a grand opening dinner at Baum’s refurbished Windows on the World. ”I felt as though I died and went to heaven,” the executive wrote, ”which I imagine is not too far from the 107th floor!”

I was happy to be reminded, when I checked, that Joe Baum had died at 78, of natural causes, three years ago.

When I finally went back in the house on Tuesday, I checked my e-mail. My 11-year-old daughter had sent my wife and me a message that morning from school.

”We were in science class and saw the explosion. I just wanted to make sure you were O.K., so please write back. I love you. We just had a chapel explaining that they thought terrorists attacked the World Trade Center. I was just concerned (I’m just like a parent) so I love you!”

When she got home, I told her I didn’t know you could see the World Trade Center from her classroom. She nodded and shrugged, as if to say, Why would it ever come up? And I nodded back, thinking, It wouldn’t. And it won’t again.